Continuing to Study Protest through the Pandemic

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic originally motivated many groups to shift their activism online, the killing  of unarmed George Floyd by police in May motivated extensive and sustained protest across the US.   As these protests grew and the Trump Administration deployed forces in many cities, it become increasingly clear to me that this wave of confrontational protest is part the story of resistance to the Trump Administration and its policies (see here is a for a full definition of what is the Resistance).

As protests spread across the US in response to the murder of George Floyd in May, I decided it would be a good idea to collect data and see how these protests are similar and different from those I studied as part of the American Resistance project.  Since the University of Maryland is under research restrictions due to the pandemic, I was required to gain approval to do in-person research during the pandemic (in addition to my IRB protocol for collecting data from human subjects).  To limit risks to the research team and research subjects, I revised the project’s research protocol so that everyone on the research team would wear a face mask, wipe down all equipment between respondents (ie wiping our electronic tablets and/or cell phones that were being used for data collection between administrations), and aim to maintain social distance from respondents. Here’s a photo of the research team after collecting data at the District Die-In on June 4th, 2020 (photo credit Cheriss May for the New York Times): NYTsImage

We tested out this new protocol at multiple protests in June.  It worked well: everyone was happy to watch us use the wipes to wipe down our electronic tablets, maintaining social distance was not difficult, and almost all respondents were also wearing masks.  In the end, the response rates were only slightly lower than they had been at other protests where I have surveyed since the Trump Administration took office in 2017.

Thanks to a recent grant from the Russell Sage Foundation, I will be working with Michael Heaney and Stella Rouse over the next year to study “The Current Mass Mobilization against Systemic Racism: Effects on Democracy and Politics.”   By collecting data in Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC, we will develop a better understanding of protest in urban centers in the US.  Although we would have loved to include more locations that represent a range of densities following the methodology proposed in this recent paper in Science Advances, we are limited to these three cities due to resource constraints.

Since data collection will continue during the pandemic, we will continue to follow the protocol that includes wearing face masks, wiping down research equipment, and maintaining social distance. Stay tuned for updates as the data are collected (our first protest is the March on Washington 2020, which is scheduled to take place on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington)!